Collaboration a key in fight against substance abuse

  • Mark Filler

    Mark Filler

  • Mark Kirk

    Mark Kirk

By Mark Kirk and Mark Filler
Guest columnists

As too many Illinois families have learned, addiction does not discriminate. Cheaper than cigarettes and more available than alcohol, heroin has become a plague on our communities. Nationwide, heroin deaths have increased by 244 percent over the past nine years, and in 2014 alone, more than 1,700 people in Illinois died of drug overdoses. One of those people was Jordan Filler, who spent eight years battling addiction and passed away at the age of 23 following a stay at a rehab facility in Utah.

President Obama's final State of the Union address on January 12th marked the second anniversary of Jordan's death. We attended the address together -- as a father who lost his son to heroin and set out trying to help families avoid this tragedy, and as a U.S. Senator who has seen too many constituents devastated by the heroin epidemic and is working to make lifesaving treatments more accessible.

We took the opportunity to share Jordan's story and shine a spotlight on the message that heroin is not just an inner-city problem -- it is affecting sons and daughters and parents of all ages in small towns and big cities across the country. Addiction is a medical disease, not a moral weakness or a lack of willpower. Understanding addiction is key to reducing the stigma and providing treatment options for those who are suffering.

More than 246,000 Illinois residents, including 35,000 teens aged 12-17, needed treatment for illegal drug use in 2014. That is why we are working together to spread awareness and share these stories with other families who are struggling to beat addiction.

After Jordan's passing, the Filler family started the Jordan Michael Filler Foundation to work with local schools and communities to protect other children and families from the dangers of heroin and drug addiction. One thing that unites us is the important role the medication naloxone plays in saving lives by reversing the effects of opioids and stopping an overdose. DuPage County police officers have reported saving over one hundred lives from overdose during the past three years when naloxone is administered, and many Illinois counties are expanding the use of naloxone by first responders.

With the help of the Sen. Kirk Anti-Heroin Task Force, after almost two years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved naloxone in both injector and intranasal forms for over-the-counter use nationwide. In November, the FDA approved the easy-to-use intranasal spray, and earlier this month, task force leaders and members of the White House's Drug Control Policy office joined Walgreens to announce that the pharmacy chain will be the first to make naloxone available without a prescription in Illinois. Naloxone has already saved many lives -- and this increased access means it has the potential to save countless more.

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Research shows that four out of five heroin users started with prescription pain medication -- a high risk for teenagers who can abuse prescription drugs found in medicine cabinets at home. In Illinois in 2014, more than 40,000 teenagers aged 12-17 abused prescription pain medications.

With more teens becoming addicted every day, the Senate has passed the Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act, legislation that provides up to $80 million in funding for prevention, treatment and recovery, and to expand prevention efforts and the availability of naloxone for first responders throughout the country.

The key to fighting the heroin epidemic is to get everyone -- parents, children, local leaders, federal representatives, medical providers and the private sector -- collaborating toward the same goals of preventing drug abuse, treating addiction, and saving lives. Working together, we can prevent more families from losing a loved one to addiction.

Mark Kirk, a Republican from Highland Park, is an Illinois U.S. senator. Mark Filler is a mortgage-finance professional from Highland Park.

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